Reblogged from Thinkful.ie: https://thinkful.ie/articles/the-exactitude-of-suffering
I remember the phone call, coming as I was just waking up and looking at the day ahead with trepidation. The Spanish lab technician, speaking Italian, told me that my embryo had stopped developing, on the same day they were supposed to complete the IVF process and transfer it inside me. I remember answering briefly, and looking forward to when I could hang up the call. I looked around the room and saw my mother’s pained face, worried about my pain. Her face told me what I was feeling, for I thought I was feeling nothing. I was empty.
And here comes the surprise. I thought suffering would be rich, like a gushing of moist tears on the cheek. It was dry instead. I thought it would mean fumbling for some action or solution, but it was very still. In my being – ‘at the still point of the turning world’ -- there was neither meaning nor will. Void.
Let’s move back a few months. I’m attending my online poetry group, and I hear my dear friend Gareth, a Larkin enthusiast, read this poem:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.
It’s Philip Larkin’s ‘Deceptions’, about a woman being raped, which Larkin read about in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor which provides the epigraph. (I hope the reader will be kind enough not to think that I am comparing the amount of suffering, the intensity, or the lastingness of the damage in the two given cases, so let’s proceed.) ‘Suffering is exact’. To a mind that lays ‘open like a drawer of knives’, to a person to whom light is ‘unanswerable and tall and wide’, exposing things as they are, suffering is nothing like the familiar picture of a river of tears.
‘Suffering is exact’. What a striking line. I think that day, two months after hearing it, this line played in my head, and revealed a face of its truth. There is, following Larkin’s thought, a coolness about suffering, like a winter light that falls upon the furniture and reveals all the specks of dust, the stitches, the coffee stains. There is nowhere to go. This is exactitude. Your existence shown up to yourself unadorned. A moment in which you sit still and just observe: ‘This is it, now’. Not because you like it, but because there’s nothing else to do.
This is one kind of suffering. Not all suffering is like this. But perhaps it is ‘the’ suffering, suffering having exhausted all alternatives, or not seeking for any. It is the suffering that knows itself, and hence seeks no escape. Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic who had, and witnessed, more suffering than many of us could bear (think: factory workers’ alienation, civil war in Spain, and then the Second World War in France and England, to name the most striking ones) named this kind of suffering ‘affliction’ and gave us something remarkable to think about it. The afflicted, according to Weil, is plunged into the void, because she has nothing, she is nothing. And from there, she can be saved.
I may be doing injustice to Weil and breaking her own requirements for affliction – that the suffering be total, physical, psychological, social – to apply her brilliant thoughts to more ordinary cases of suffering such as the one I used, at the start of this piece, to ground my thoughts: mostly for myself, but perhaps for some of you, too, whose suffering feels just like this void, but feel ashamed to say it because it feels like you didn’t earn the label by going through some more objectively tragic event.
So be it. Let’s call it suffering, and not affliction, but let’s see what we can learn by describing it in a similar way. Like Larkin, Weil saw the emptiness, the helpless and unadorned state generated by suffering, as a door to truth. Larkin saw clarity in suffering. Weil saw truth. In the absence of consolation which grasps hopelessly at the twigs offered from above, both our vision and our being are clear. We do not grasp, we do not embellish; being nothing, we feel we can be no better than anyone else: we do not judge.
This is not yet another kind of consolation. Nor is it a reason to seek this form of suffering (if one did go after it, moreover, it would be self-defeating). Weil transforms metaphysically what is in Larkin a psychological observation. She finds the sufferer into the ‘void’, where we are nothing, and see ourselves as such. There, devoid of illusion, devoid of ego, we have no interest to pursue anything, not just physically but also psychically. There, we are as close as we can get to the original mind, the objective mind with no desire, interest, point of view.
These are heady thoughts. I advise the reader who is intrigued by them to look into Weil’s reflections to find the full meaning and richness of her insights. What I wanted to do in this piece was find a space for the silent, still suffering that I think so many experience, a specific form of suffering, and see what can be found in it; to reflect together on the idea that sometimes the question is not ‘what to do’ with our suffering. Indeed, what can we do with the suffering of a broken heart?
It’s no consolation. And that’s precisely the point.
PODCAST: 'MORAL IMPOSSIBILITY AND CULTURAL SELF KNOWLEDGE' - JOINT MSCA INTERVIEW WITH OLLI LAGERSPETZ
In this podcast, Olli Lagerspetz & Silvia Caprioglio Panizza, the two current Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellows (2022) at the Centre for Ethics discuss their EU-funded projects, the value of carrying them out at the Centre, and similarities between their philosophical interests. Silvia's project, Moral Impossibility: Rethinking Choice and Conflict (MIGHT), focuses on the scope of what is possible for the subject in a moral sense, and how the range of possibilities that we have available is important in determining what our choices are and mean, as well as in revealing our deepest moral commitments. In this conversation she outlines various forms of moral impossibility, with one extended example from animal testing, and applies the research question to other contemporary issues such as the war in Ukraine, concluding with further applications and interdisciplinary directions for the project. In his project, Philosophy as Cultural Self-Knowledge: R. G. Collingwood, Peter Winch and the Human Sciences (WC-CULT), Olli discusses the role of the humanities and social sciences. History is neither sacred memory nor litigation – as it too often seems in the present war – but targeted inquiries. As with philosophy, the value of the human sciences lies in that they enhance the self-knowledge and self-understanding of cultures and societies. Olli also talks about his finds in the posthumous Peter Winch and R. G. Collingwood Archives.
Blog: The name of the mother
Reblogged from The Centre for Ethics' blog: https://centreforethics.upce.cz/en/name-mother
It’s hard to offer anything new in the growing discussions on gender. Instead, I can offer, like anyone else, something personal. In December last year, I changed my last name. Or rather, I ‘augmented’ it, by including my mother’s surname before my father’s—the latter, given to me at birth by default: legal, cultural, political, moral, and practical default.
Whenever we do things by default, there’s also a reason to be vigilant. In the unquestioned, injustices can thrive. Of course, unexamined habits are useful and indeed necessary. But it doesn’t hurt to bring them to our attention from time to time. If they’re good, they can slip back into the state of the unconsidered.
I could not let this particular habit stay in the realm of the unquestioned: the practice of giving children the father’s surname, no questions raised. In Italy, at least, where I was born, the question is not raised because there is no alternative (only recently, the mother is allowed add her name after the father’s, never before, and never give the child only her name). But (with due exceptions) where the alternative is offered, it is rarely taken seriously. The child’s name is the name of the father. That’s how it’s always been done.
Even women of a younger generation, those starting families now, seem to rarely question this practice. Or if they question it, they still rarely change it. ‘It’s just a name, why make a fuss?’ is one of the reasons I heard, when I asked friends about the loss of their name in their offspring. ‘I don’t like my surname’ was another answer. Both, I think, are significant.
On the one hand, minimising the importance of a sign, a symbol, a word, is hardly done in good faith. In families, last names identify whose child this is. They are also the sound to which the child will respond as ‘me’ for their whole lives. We know names matter. Certainly in Italy (writing this with a pinch of irony) names as well as titles matter. Brushing off the importance of the mother’s name is akin to trying to set aside something uncomfortable, personally or publicly embarrassing.
The continual loss of the woman’s name becomes even more salient in the context of the significant advances in gender equalities in many countries. It is also more striking because it is dismissed by some of the very women who would not tolerate some other forms of gender inequality. This may, in fact, be a sign that it’s here that an important part of the game is to be played. In fighting oppression, but not the symbols of it. In the silence and discomfort around this issue.
Some mothers, I have been told, do not give their last name to the children because ‘they don’t like it’, ‘they can’t wait to get rid of it’. An aesthetic reason, which does not bear evaluation? I wonder. First -- and I admit this is anecdotal evidence -- this kind of reason is typically offered by women, not by men. Is it possible that the woman’s last name is so frequently uglier? My more daring hypothesis, here, is that women live through their family name with discomfort, the kind of discomfort that leads us to brush off the issue of the last name, and that the name of the father alone sits uncomfortably on them, upon them.
Let me elaborate with another anecdote: since I’ve had two surnames, it has happened that in public forms, say a doctor’s practice, my mother’s name appeared as ‘née Caprioglio’, since that is the name in the middle. It made me smile. I am not married, but that’s not the point. I am, indeed, ‘born’ Caprioglio, my very flesh and being formed and grew inside my mother’s flesh and being. I am ‘hers’ in a way that I cannot be ‘his’.
Is being deprived of the mother’s name, and living disliking one’s only surname, one more trick in the self-hate of women, and one more way to silence them? One more way to cut them off from their history?
When my new identity card arrived, my mother, who had only been mildly approving of my long paperwork efforts to achieve the change, was deeply moved. She said that for the first time she felt, in a new way, that she had a publicly – legally - recognised lineage, that her lineage mattered.
I like my name now. I no longer feel cut off from a lineage of women who are in my blood, whose struggles and oppression are in my blood. Whose feminine, whose joys, whose bodies are too. I have roots, which are so infinitely important, especially if they have been denied. Me, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my great-grandmother…
*These thoughts reflect the practices of the countries, in Europe, with which I am familiar. They do not apply, of course, wherever the father’s name is not the default option.
Image credit: Brett Jordan from Unsplash
Talk at the ESDIT research group (Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies): www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7AxXBlmASgg
Reblogged from Thinkful.ie: https://thinkful.ie/articles/ocd-and-trust
Trust in the world, others, and ourselves is fundamental to our lives. Trust is a silent companion, for when we trust, we don’t think about it; when trust is in place, we don’t usually think about the reasons for our trust, nor do we worry about the possibility of being let down. Trust means not constantly checking that what or whom we trust is going to behave as we believe they will.
At the same time, trust also depends on uncertainty. If we know without a shadow of a doubt that someone is going to perform a certain action, we do not trust: we predict. If we trust, we know there is, in principle, the possibility of something going wrong, but we believe (or we can say: ‘we have faith’) that it will not. To some extent, we give ourselves over to what or whom we trust. In a completely controlled, completely self sufficient world, trust would have no place. But that’s not the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where we are vulnerable, where uncertainty is our daily bread, and where we need the support and the actions of so much reality and so many people other than ourselves just to live. Trust, as philosopher Annette Baier famously put it, is ‘accepted vulnerability’.
If trust is so fundamental to our lives, and so entangled with uncertainty and vulnerability, then the more trust is missing, the more disrupted our lives will be. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes we need to withdraw trust, and sometimes we distrust for good reason. But we cannot do without it. And, I want to suggest, we cannot do without the substrate of trust in reality that allows us to believe that, more or less, the world is going to function as it should, that we will still be alive tomorrow, that our home is not going to explode when we go out for a walk, that – as any scientist, well, anyone, can tell us – the fact that we stepped on a crack in the pavement is not going to cause a world war.
There are people who lack that kind of trust, and whose lives are held captive by a tragic sequence of worries that the world is not going to function as it should; worries that are sometimes, indeed often, accompanied by the constantly checking I mentioned above – precisely what trustors don’t do.
Among these people are the ones who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. Here I want to talk about OCD in terms of trust in the world (the world: such a big and vague word; I hope fellow philosophers will excuse me, and see why I need to use it because of its breadth and vagueness). Such lack of trust is accompanied by a proliferation of harrowing possibilities in one’s mind, which ordinarily just do not occur to people. If we trust that the sun will rise tomorrow, we don’t (seriously) think that it may not. Some people with OCD think that it may not. And, often, they feel it’s up to them to make sure that it will.
For lack of trust means taking it upon oneself to make sure everything will go as it should. Just as not trusting doctors involves endless internet searches for one’s potential disease, so not trusting the world involves trying to control what we really cannot, because the mind in the grip of OCD is tormented by the unpredictable fragility of things, understandably coupled with the overwhelming responsibility to avoid disaster, and because the stakes are too high not to try at least.
What makes OCD and its distrust of the world so hard to overcome is that yes, it is possible that the exact moment after you step on the cracks in the pavement a war will break out. It is possible that our home will explode when we go for a walk. And, although there is no known fact to suggest it, it is remotely possible that the sun will not rise tomorrow. All of this torments the OCD sufferer and gives the person in the grip of the obsession a strange sense of rationality. If it’s possible, why should I not worry about it, and why should I not try to stop it? The exhausting task of holding the world on one’s shoulders is very hard to shake off, when one cannot trust the solidity of reality .
It is possible that the world won’t keep its promise: and this is why trust is at stake and not – as some philosophers might suggest here – mere reliance. When you fear that your child may come to harm if you don’t comb your hair 100 times, you are not just lacking reliance on your child’s body. You are afraid that you will be betrayed by the very ground under your feet.
Trust is not just rational, it is also emotional. So it’s no good telling the person with OCD that it’s extremely unlikely that they’ve just been poisoned by eating an apple they touched before washing their hands; it’s also no good telling them there is no causal connection between the order in which they place their books and the possibility of a flood in their region. They (in a sense) know all that. But there is still, not only the ‘what if’ of distrust in their mind, but also the fear in their gut.
Why can’t the person affected by OCD take a leap and trust a world which to everyone else presents so much less uncertainty and causes for fear?
Perhaps some of the healing can come just from accepting that trust is what is called for. That uncertainty and vulnerability are real, but they are shared uncertainty and vulnerability. To try, like many other individuals, to trust that something will hold us, and accept that we cannot hold all of the world ourselves. For everyone – even the person haunted by OCD – knows that we cannot. And that’s part of their torment and its endless repetitions. Trust in the world may come through small tests, but it builds up, although it can be extremely hard even to try. But really, we have no choice: to trust the world is to be at home in it, and since we have no other home, we might as well come in, sit down on the couch, stretch our legs, take a deep breath, and rest for at least a little while.
*A disclaimer: there are many types of OCD according to various classifications. Not all of them involve compulsive behaviour, and not all of them involve magical thinking. In this post I am taking specific types of OCD as examples, and relying mostly on the sorts of examples with which I am most familiar. For more information on the varieties of OCD see e.g. HTTPS://IOCDF.ORG/ABOUT-OCD/
Hosted by Marmara Felsefe research seminar
Watch on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KUjxkt8F_k
Abstract:: in this paper I present an argument for an ethics of attention, i.e. a conception of ethics which takes attention as fundamental. I will do this by drawing on and developing insights from Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil. I present two axes along which to consider attention ethically: the presence and absence of attention (attention as truth-revealing), and the objects of attention (attention as focusing our minds and structuring our visions via some particular objects). Together, these axes show that whether we attend and what we attend do determine the background upon which moral thinking, deliberation, and action take place. Hence, attention does not replace, but is prior, to much of what is considered in contemporary academic moral discourse. It follows that, to address moral issues, we first of all need to pay attention to attention.
From Philosophy Voiced: The podcast of the Centre for Ethics
In this episode of Philosophy Voiced, Marie Skłodowská-Curie Fellow Silvia Caprioglio Panizza interviews Sophie Grace Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, discussing her the scope and significance of ethics, philosophical style, poetry, non-human animals, embodiment, contemporary politics, climate change, and being a transgender philosopher. Much of the conversation revolves around Prof Chappell’s recent book Epiphanies: An Ethics of Experience (Oxford University Press 2022).
Sophie Grace Chappell was one of five speakers at the MSCA funded workshop ‘“Here I am, I can do no other – or can I?” On the Reality of Moral Impossibility’ as part of the MIGHT project and hosted by the Centre for Ethics on 9-10 September 2022.
Sophie Grace Chappell is Professor of Philosophy at the Open University. She works in ethics, the philosophy of literature, the philosophy of sex and gender, ancient and mediaeval philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of religion She is the author of over a hundred articles and numerous books, including Aristotle and Augustine on Freedom (Springer 1995), The Inescapable Self (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005), Knowing What To Do (Oxford University Press 2017). She is now pursuing a number of different writing projects, including a new book: Trans Figured: How to survive as a transgender person in a cisgender world.
image credit: Noah Buscher on Unsplash